If you need a historical perspective on how consolidation is reshaping the business, look no further than the differences between the companies listed in the first ranking ever published, β€œThe Industry's Biggest 100,” which appeared in EW's March 1970 issue, and this year's listing. Less than two dozen companies are still operating under the same names.

Many distributors at the top of the 1970 listing were absorbed by other electrical firms or went out of business, including big-time players such as Tujax Industries (Chapter 11); Englewood Electrical Supply (now part of WESCO); American Electric, Raybro and Amfac (CED acquisitions); and Glasco, ESD and Summers (all now part of Rexel).

The listings will also teach you which companies outpaced the pack as they raced to the top of the ranking. For instance, in the 1970 ranking, Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc. (CED), Westlake Village, Calif., had 25 locations. The company now has at least 550 branches.

Another company known for its rapid trek through the ranks was All-Phase Electric Supply, Benton Harbor, Mich. After starting All-Phase in a renovated A&P grocery store, company founder Ron Kinney built a commanding industry presence with an acquisition binge that lasted nearly 20 years. All-Phase first made the listing in 1971, with 115 employees and eight locations. In 2000, its last year in the Top 250 as an independent company, it was ranked as the eighth largest distributor in the United States, with 1,469 employees, 93 branches and $570 million in 1999 sales. CED bought All-Phase in 1999.

Today, there's a distributor that can attest to growth that even All-Phase or CED would envy. Sonepar U.S., Berwyn, Pa., hit $1 billion in sales faster than any electrical distributor in history. When first listed in the Top 250 just four years ago as the eleventh largest distributor, Sonepar had $508 million in sales, 1,098 employees and 47 locations. In this year's ranking, the company is ranked No. 7, its sales have more than doubled to $1.46 billion, and it now has 217 locations and 3,700 employees. The Paris-based company made the first of more than 30 U.S. acquisitions in 1998, (Boston's Eagle Electric Supply) and over the past few years has aggressively opened new branches, too.

The listing, which EW published every other year until going annual in 1990, has changed not only in the companies represented and their ranking in relation to each other but in format. The listing grew to the Top 120 in 1971, the Top 150 in 1974, the Top 225 in 1980 and the 250 Biggest in 1982. It's interesting to note that the reason the listing became the 250 Biggest β€” the moniker with which most readers are still most familiar β€” was purely a marketing decision. EW's marketing manager at the time thought 250 companies was a good number because it was half of the Fortune 500.

In 2003, EW cut the listing from 250 to 200 companies. Industry consolidation was a contributing factor, but more important was a large cluster of companies that developed each year with the size necessary to make the bottom of the list, which in 2002 was approximately $16 million in sales. Not all of these companies would provide company data each year, so the tail end of the 250 Biggest would often have many different companies represented from year-to-year. That wasn't the case with the 200 largest companies, so we cut down the list to more accurately reflect the industry's largest electrical distributors.

I would be remiss in not thanking the distributors who participate in this project every year by providing data on their companies. It's also a good time to publicly recognize Sarah Dolash, EW's managing editor, who manages this project. It's a massive job that requires several months of intense attention to detail and the perseverance to track down respondents and accurate data. Her efforts follow those of Andrea Herbert, who for many years carefully nurtured the 250 Biggest. They made the ranking what it is today: one of the most valuable tools available anywhere to analyze the growth and changes in the electrical business.